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Dr Thomas Smith

Research interests

Alongside the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, the combustion of biomass in open vegetation fires is one of the key pathways by which humans directly affect Earth's atmosphere. The gases and particulates released in biomass burning plumes have substantial short- and long-term chemical, radiative and climatic impacts, and proper assessment of their effects generally requires spatio-temporally resolved data on the makeup and magnitude of emissions sources.

My research attempts to improve our knowledge of the precise makeup and magnitude of biomass burning emissions. The initial focus of my research was on establishing the accuracy of an open-path infrared spectroscopic methodology for determining trace gas concentrations. After confirming the reliability of the method (in Smith et al., 2011), measurements made at fires during field excursions to Alberta (Canada), Northern Territory (Australia) and Northumberland/Dorset (UK) have been used estimate emission factors for a variety of trace gases. Current wildfire research includes modelling total gaseous emissions from UK moorlands, establishing a method for estimating emission factors from solar occultation spectra, and linking aerosol optical depth of smoke plumes with gaseous emissions. Other research interests include establishing new methods for measuring cloud cover and cloud types, and using these to model atmospheric transmissivity.

Recently I have embarked on a NERC-funded knowledge exchange project with the UK Fire and Rescue Service. Building on existing links with Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS), the project aims to enhance the “wildfire training” programme offered by NRFS. The KE project has begun to develop the use of fire modelling tools in the UK wildfire training programme to enhance officers’ understanding of vegetation fire behaviour. The project also exploits airborne infrared imaging from low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – allowing recording and replaying of ‘training fires’, supporting future training of FRS personnel, but also providing valuable research-quality fire intensity and rate-of-spread data. The Wildfire Research Knowledge Exchange Portal can be found here.

For more details on Tom’s research and publications, visit the KCL wildfire group’s websiteTom’s twitter feed, or feel free to email thomas.smith at

Biographical details

Tom joined the Department as a Lecturer in Physical & Environmental Geography in April 2013. Tom’s interest in physical geography developed following a fieldtrip to the Isle of Arran in October 2002 during his A level studies at King Edward VI Aston School in Birmingham. Tom continued to study geography as an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield, receiving a First Class BSc degree as well as the Hart Prize in Physical Geography in 2006. He later worked for a year as a teaching assistant at Park View School in Birmingham.

In 2007, Tom was awarded a NERC fully funded studentship and a Mercers Company Educational Grant to embark on the Masters in Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Management at King’s, achieving a distinction and the Peter Balchin Prize for the best dissertation. Tom began his PhD at King’s in 2008, supported by a full NERC-ESRC interdisciplinary studentship. His PhD research investigated novel techniques for measuring biomass burning emissions, evaluating these methodologies and applying them to study emissions from fires in Canada, Australia and the UK. Since completing his doctorate in 2012, Tom has continued to explore opportunities to measure biomass burning emissions, extending his scope to the tropical peatlands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. He has given talks at the EGU and at various institutions in Australia, Brunei and the UK.

In addition to biomass burning research, Tom is a keen proponent of Knowledge Exchange activity. Supported by a NERC Knowledge Exchange grant, he has been working closely with Northumberland Fire & Rescue Service and various other Fire & Rescue Services in the UK to incorporate the use of airborne remote sensing and fire spread modelling in wildfire fire fighter training programmes. Tom’s work with Northumberland FRS has been used by numerous FRS’s, including Durham & Darlington, Staffordshire, Herefordshire & Worcestershire, Northern Ireland, Lancashire, and Dorset FRS’s. Tom has spoken at the Chief Fire Officers’ Association and has presented at wildfire training courses in Denmark, Spain and the UK. He is also qualified in the tactical use of fire. Current work aims to extend this knowledge exchange activity to land management in UK National Parks. When not working, Tom enjoys photography; some of his photos are exhibited on his personal website.

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